Mindfulness and Eating Disorders – The Basics and Getting Started

Recent research reveals that mindful eating and other mindfulness practices can be a powerful foundation for resolving eating disorders, in particular, binge eating disorder.

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness simply means awareness. “Practicing” mindfulness means being as intentionally (and non-judgmentally) aware of what is happening in each moment, as best you can. Does it sound hard? It shouldn’t. When applied not only to eating behaviors, but also to one’s bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and related states such as boredom or desire, mindfulness can transform and even uproot compulsive, repetitive, and unconscious patterns. Mindfulness leads us towards a healthier and freer relationship to these areas of our inner experience, and thus to eating and food.

In studies on eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, mindful eating shows particular promise. Recent studies report that increases in mindfulness predicted decreases in the number of binges. Participants found that eating mindfully was more fulfilling than the diet-binge cycle they were used to, and reported that they did not gain weight.(1) They also reported increased motivation to change unhealthy eating behaviors.(2)

Mindful eating can be practiced along with any diet, dietary program, or way of eating. As your mindfulness deepens, you will naturally be drawn towards a way of eating that is healthier, less fixated, and more enjoyable.

There are several areas that a mindfulness approach to eating disorders focuses on. These are your body, eating behaviors, thought patterns and underlying beliefs, and emotions. An eating disorder can only take hold in our lack of awareness – or even dissociation – from body, eating behaviors, thoughts, and/or emotions. Unfortunately, 99% of weight and diet programs don’t even begin to address one – let alone all four – of these areas.

The foundation of a mindfulness approach to an eating disorder should begin with body mindfulness. Long ago, author James Joyce wrote that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” It may sound like an exaggeration, but many with eating disorders also live a short distance from their bodies!

Fortunately, we can learn to re-inhabit our body through an easy, calming (and highly stress-reducing!) exercise called “body scanning.” While the most thorough or relaxing body scan takes 20 to 45 minutes, even a 5 to 10 minute body scan can be therapeutic.

Instructions for a Brief Body Scan: Close your eyes and take 1-2 minutes to scan your “inner body” with your awareness to find the points that are the most tense and contracted. Spend the next 3-5 minutes being mindfully aware of these places. (There’s no need to force anything to relax. Just paying mindful attention will gradually relax tense and contracted muscles.) End by taking several deep breaths.

Did you notice your mind wandering during this exercise? If so, don’t worry, it happens to everyone at the beginning. The wandering mind is the direct experience of “living a short distance from your body.” With practice, you’ll be able to stay with the body more and more.

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(1) Kristeller, J.L., et al. (2007) Mindfulness meditation: a treatment of binge eating disorder. In The Relevance of Wisdom Traditions in Contemporary Society: the Challenge to Psychology. Eburon.

(2) Leaheya, T.M., et al. (2008) A cognitive-behavioral mindfulness group therapy intervention for the treatment of binge eating in bariatric surgery patients. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 15:4, 364-375.